Rebuilding After Katrina : Robert Lyall and New Orleans Opera

What is the status of New Orleans Opera in the aftermath Hurricane Katrina?

There’s good news and there’s bad news. I’ll try to dispense with the bad news first. We had to cancel our two fall productions, which were Otello and The Marriage of Figaro, our October and November events. With no small irony, Otello opens with a hurricane, and it [Katrina] blew away the New Orleans Opera’s fall season! But I was able to reschedule “Figaro” to open the next season. … As far as placing Otello, that’s a little more complicated because of some of the principals that we had involved—but it will come back at the appropriate time.

The other change that I made was [in] our spring season, with productions in February, March, and April. February [will feature] a truly grand gala, and we are now planning to open the season with that. March was to have been the Janáček opera Jenůfa, and I have rescheduled that because of the uniqueness of the plot. An infant is drowned in the opera, and it just hits a little too close to home. Also, it’s not a very light-hearted work. So I have rescheduled Jenůfa for next season, and I have put in its place The Barber of Seville. Our final work of the season was to be Madama Butterfly. But I said, “I’m sorry. It has a sad ending, too. Maybe I’ll make it into a happy ending.”

You’ll just rewrite it.

My concept is this: They drink lots and lots of sake at the wedding and they end up forgetting about Kate Pinkerton—and they live happily ever after. [Laughs.]

The other bad news was that when I was finally able to get into New Orleans about two weeks ago, the theater had about 12 feet of water in the orchestra pit. That, of course, was the area for a lot of the electrical circuitry. But I understand now that it has been pumped dry and that they will start fixing or replacing the electrical circuits and some of the things that would affect the stage hydraulics. It is the management of the hall’s belief that the theater might be operating by late December. That will be just fine for our first event [in] early February.

I read that the storage unit where you house your sets was under water. Is that true?

Not entirely true.

As was true in almost every instance in the weeks immediately following Katrina, if you asked a question you got two diametrically opposed answers. If you talked with people who felt they had information, they would say, “Oh, well that area was bone dry.” And then the next person would say, “That area was under six feet of water.” So you never quite knew.

The truth of the matter is that our scenic studio was not severely damaged by wind. We did lose a loading door, and there was a little bit of wind damage. There was flooding, but it was only eight inches to a foot. Our scenic studio has about a dozen productions that sit on the floor level, and then it has about a dozen productions that are suspended in what we call the loft, and those are about 20 feet in the air. Obviously, anything that was in the loft was fine. Those that were sitting on the floor level did suffer some water damage. We’ve [had] our crews in there all of this last week, pulling those productions and photographing them for insurance purposes, but also to give us a very specific idea as to what rentals we can service this fall and which ones we cannot because the set had too much damage.

We were very fortunate … a number of buildings in that area were really devastated, but our scenic studio was not. [We] have a costume shop there with sewing equipment and computer equipment. Some of that naturally had some water damage, but it was nothing like what it could have been. Nor was it anything like some of the descriptions that I, too, read, referring to it as “catastrophic damage.” It started striking me [as] a little bit like Mark Twain’s statement: “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

How have contracts—both with other opera companies to use your sets and with singers—been affected by all of this?

I received a lot of calls and e-mails from companies that were concerned, saying, “We were renting your ‘XYZ’ in this time period. Does it look like we will be able to get our set?” Initially, I would have to say, “I really don’t know at this time.” But now, I have a pretty good picture. I’ve had a lot of studies of the inventory made. It’s going to be a case-by-case evaluation, but I’m confident that we will be able to fill most of our contracts this season.

[The contracts include] “force majeure” clauses. New Orleans Opera has the right to simply cancel the productions, because we couldn’t put them on. There is a clause in almost every contract—not just singing contracts—that if there is an act of God that causes such destruction or causes an event not to take place, then people are absolved from responsibilities. But I’d like to think that we can do the honorable thing, as much as is possible, because it’s not just those singers’ livelihood—it’s my livelihood, it’s our staff’s livelihood, [and] the company’s well-being. It impacts our orchestra and our chorus, both of which are [now displaced] all over the country.

The Louisiana Philharmonic, which is a fantastic orchestra, has now been dispersed. They are gathering in Nashville tomorrow for the first time since the storm hit, and having a benefit with the Nashville Symphony. That’s the first time that all of those players will be back together. … We are all very uncertain as to what our audience will be, because it, too, is scattered all over the Southeast and Southwest.

Most of my board members are in Houston, Baton Rouge and Florida. The same thing is true of our chorus. Our chorus is an AGMA chorus, but of course, they are avocational singers … so if their [jobs were] destroyed in the New Orleans area, it might be a while before they have anything to return to. Some of our chorus members lost their complete houses and everything they own, and many of them lost jobs. It’s going to be very difficult to know what we have to work with until we start the process.

Were you in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and were you involved in the evacuation?

I had left. I’m also the director of the opera company in Grand Rapids, Mich., so I had a week of business meetings that was planned [to start on] the Monday the storm hit. My wife is the supervisor of the genetics laboratory at LSU Health Sciences Center. She had gone to a genetics conference in Chicago and came home early.

I had to schedule my flight very early Monday morning to go to Michigan. I called the airlines and was told that all flights out of New Orleans would be cancelled on Monday. So I rescheduled my flight through Jackson, Miss. At midnight on Saturday we drove from New Orleans to Jackson—which was a nice time to drive, considering the gridlock that followed. Then I found that even flights out of Jackson were being cancelled on Monday, so I flew Sunday to Michigan, and [my wife] stayed with family in Jackson.

Then the past president of the Knoxville Opera Company—I had been the director of the Knoxville Opera Company for many years—called and offered a guesthouse. So I flew from Michigan to Knoxville, Tenn., and my wife drove over.

We have been most comfortable. The line from one of the great Southern plays—Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire—[is appropriate]: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Well, in this case, they weren’t strangers—but they were awfully kind!

Then we were offered an apartment in New York City. I do cultural lecturing for a not-for-profit organization called the International Council for Cultural Exchange. They had an apartment in Manhattan that was empty and offered it to me, and so we came to Manhattan.

We are now ready to go home. I love New York City; I grew up here—but I have an opera company to rebuild. So, I have been on the phone 20 hours a day, and on the computer 24-hours a day [during] the last month, with all of these artists’ contracts and schedules, and these issues with orchestra and the chorus.

I have to say that the Lyall’s were very fortunate. We did not suffer any great loss, and we were made comfortable by very generous offers of friends and associates. It is painful to hear about the [losses suffered by] a lot of members of the orchestra and the chorus, and members of the community that lost everything they own.

So your home is intact?

My home is fine. I live in the Garden District. It’s a high area, and so that is not a bad flood plain. It traditionally does not flood there, and it did not in this hurricane. When I was able to get into the city, I went to my house and breathed a huge sigh of relief that it was still there. Then I went to the opera offices, and our offices were fine. We just got electricity and e-mail access in there Monday.

Then I went to the theater, and the theater was in surprisingly good shape, considering that it was on the edge of one of those areas that you have seen on CNN for the last month. It didn’t suffer a lot of external or interior damage. The audience seating area is fine, [although] there’s a big debate going on now as to whether they’ll have to replace the seats because of mold and mildew.

The stage area was largely intact. Then when I went down to the orchestra pit I ran into a wall of water—there was about 12 feet of water. They just finished pumping it out the day before yesterday—so now we’re getting things [to a point] where they can evaluate what needs to be done.

The Orpheum, the symphony’s hall, really sustained a lot of damage, even in the seating areas, because it’s right downtown [in] a heavy flooding area. That hall will likely be closed for the entire year. So the opera company seems to have escaped with a minimum of damage. There’s a substantial dollar cost to repairing all of those sets, but as far as losing huge quantities of materials, we seem to have avoided the catastrophic losses that were evidence elsewhere. I’m in the process now of writing a letter for our website that will tell subscribers what our policy will be for subscriber tickets. We are hoping that [subscribers] are there come February.

What are your immediate plans?

I will be leaving New York City the end of this week [the first week of October] to go to Michigan to conduct Turandot. I’ll be there through the 23rd [of October], and I’ll be going from there to New Orleans.

We still don’t have phone service there [in the office], and understand that we might not for as long as another month. That kind of infrastructure has just been totally disrupted, and of course they’ve given a much higher priority, and justly so, to hospitals and things of that sort.

We’ve set up a website called “Singers Helping Singers,” where singers can offer services for those displaced by the hurricane. Are there other ways to be of help?

We have certainly appreciated all of the expressions of concern and interest. I’ve had e-mails and phone calls from singers that have volunteered everything from a willingness to house people to wanting to sing on galas and benefits for the Opera Association. The Mississippi Opera contacted me and offered dates in their hall. I have been working with Baton Rouge to find alternative performance spaces in the event that we were unable to use our halls in New Orleans. It looks like that won’t be necessary now.

There’s been a lot of that kind of contact, both from agencies, institutions, and organizations, [as well as] individuals. It’s been very gratifying. The gala concert will be Feb. 3 and 4, and we might add a matinee as a benefit on the 5th. Marc Scorca, president of Opera America, will be there to make a presentation on these efforts of assistance—to show that the opera community pulled together to get behind an organization that was in distress. I think that’s a wonderful thing, just as I think it’s a wonderful thing the Nashville Symphony did for the [New Orleans] Philharmonic—it offered them a forum and a concert base to allow them to start reorganizing.

How does rebuilding New Orleans Opera fit into the rebuilding of an entire community?

The emergence of major fine arts events can be one of the most healing statements that can be made. It shows that we have gone beyond just food and shelter and we’re back to issues of feeding the soul. I’m hoping that things continue to develop positively so that we can be on stage with our February, March, and April events, because that will be just about the time that we need to be making such a statement.

Sara Thomas

Sara Thomas is editor of Classical Singer magazine. She welcomes your comments.